P.D. James: Who killed the golden age of crime?

Remembering the gentlemanly world of Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

In 1934, in her preface to an anthology of short detective stories, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, ‘Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.’ And, to judge by the worldwide popularity of this essentially innocent genre, it is not only the Anglo-Saxon race who are addicted to murder and mystery.

It was in the so-called Golden Age between the two world wars that the genre flourished so imaginatively and successfully that it seemed that everyone who could put together a coherent narrative was tempted to join this fascinating and lucrative game. The Oxford academics in particular seemed to be writing mainly to amuse themselves and each other. Many distinguished and popular writers whose detective stories have survived had careers in other fields. Nicholas Blake, whose detective is Nigel Strangeways, was the poet Cecil Day-Lewis; Edmund Crispin (Gervase Fen) was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery, a musician, composer and critic. Cyril Hare (Francis Pettigrew) was Judge Alfred Alexander Gordon and Michael Innes (John Appleby) was a don and professor of English at the University of Adelaide, while those writing under their own names included Monsignor Ronald Knox, and G.D.H. Cole and his wife, who were both economists. These Oxford writers were working within the accepted structure of a central mysterious crime, invariably murder, a closed circle of suspects, a detective who arrives rather like an avenging deity to solve the crime, and a convincing solution which readers should be able to arrive at themselves by logical deduction from the clues provided cunningly but fairly. But although the form could be considered formulaic, the writing was not. The Golden Age novelists who are still read provide more than an original and exciting plot; distinction in the writing, a vivid sense of place, a memorable and compelling hero and the ability to draw the reader into their comforting and highly individual world.

Almost as if he was afraid the game might get out of hand, Monsignor Ronald Knox, himself an aficionado, set down the rules in his preface to Best Detective Stories 1928–29. These included certain imperatives. The criminal must be mentioned early in the narrative but the reader must never be permitted to know his thoughts. All supernatural agencies are inadmissible. There must be no more than one secret room or passage, no undiscovered poisons should be used, and no accident or unaccountable intuition should help the detective. He should not rely on any clues which are withheld from the reader, nor should he commit the crime himself. The Watson should be slightly less intelligent than the average reader and his thoughts on the crime should not be concealed. Finally twins and doubles should not appear without the reader knowing about them, and there must be no Chinamen. This last prohibition is somewhat difficult to understand. Was it that Chinamen, if inclined to murder, were so cunning and ingenious that the amateur detective would have no hope of outwitting them?

The Watson, as used by Arthur Conan Doyle, soon became superfluous. When a writer felt that his character should have someone to whom he could look for practical help and to communicate progress with the less perceptive reader, servants often provided a convenient expedient. Lord Peter Wimsey had Bunter, Albert Campion had his cockney manservant Magersfontein Lugg, while he also fostered a relationship with Inspectors Stanislaus Oates and Charlie Luke. Generally Poirot and Miss Marple worked in isolation, and we can rely on them for the occasional enigmatic remark or comment. These rules would, of course, be fatal to the development of the genre if rigorously kept — and Agatha Christie, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, broke the most important of them and has never been completely forgiven by her readers.

A character in Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On describes English literature as ‘snobbery with violence’, words which are more commonly applied to crime fiction, and to detective stories in particular. Certainly in their unquestioning and usually rural lives characters do in fact seem to know their place and to be happy in it. Readers expected the detective to be a gentleman in all senses of the word. Lord Peter Wimsey is the younger son of a duke, Roderick Alleyn has a mother who is a baronet’s widow, a fact that we are not infrequently reminded of when he takes tea or dinner with her, while Albert Campion has a lineage so distinguished that we are not permitted to know who his mother was, although there are hints that royalty is involved. None of the amateur detectives seems short of money and Dorothy L. Sayers admits she much enjoyed providing her hero with all the attributes of nobility and wealth and was confident that this was what her readers expected. ‘When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I took a luxurious flat for [Lord Peter] in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare, I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it.’


Where modern sensibility detects snobbery, the writer was probably describing a social distinction which was generally accepted and seldom challenged. Even so there is for many of the women writers of the Golden Age a clear division between ‘our kind of person’ and those who are not. The ‘right kind’ of people are not necessarily rich or famous, but are invariably educated at the right school and university, and have the required family background. The views attributed to characters in the books were probably held by the writers. Certainly Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh made it plain as writers where their allegiances lay and Josephine Tey actually has a character referring to a friend’s servant as ‘your moron’, while the division between the right kind of people and the rest is very apparent in what are popularly regarded as her best books, The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar.

Dorothy L. Sayers was certainly something of an intellectual snob. In Murder Must Advertise Lord Peter takes a job as a fledgling copywriter in order to investigate a mysterious death on the firm’s premises and is introduced by Mr Hankin, one of the directors, to his future colleagues: ‘I don’t think Mr Ingleby was up in your time, Mr Bredon — he was at Trinity. Your Trinity, I mean, not ours.’ (Mr Hankin was a Cambridge man.) The only woman copywriter is introduced as ‘Miss Meteyard — of Somerville’. No wonder the less privileged members of the staff labour under a strong sense of social and educational deprivation.

Agatha Christie is never snobbish and we can be certain that any young housemaid being trained by Miss Marple will be kindly treated until she is ready to take a job where, of course, she will be available to scream when the murder is discovered and to proclaim publicly that she has some very important information which it is only right the detective should know. We can then confidently expect that there will be poison in her late-night cocoa or that she will be strangled when venturing outside to bring in the washing. Servants invariably have an important part to play in detective fiction, but not the major part; the butler didn’t do it.

The women writers, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh were particularly popular and successful. Any reader of detective fiction anywhere in the world, if asked to name a well-known fictional detective, would name Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion. Agatha Christie has said herself that she makes no claim to be an outstanding literary novelist but she knew precisely the limits of her talent and her style was lively, the dialogue good and the story never falters in the telling. It is easy to criticise her as a writer, but someone who could provide relief, entertainment and excitement to millions of people throughout the world, in peace and war, cannot be dismissed as negligible.

The novels of the Golden Age were particularly strong on plot and puzzle. The nuances of characterisation, setting and any criticism of social and class inequalities were sacrificed to the originality of the plot and the ingenuity of the murderer. Bodies were found in trains and aeroplanes, in church belfries, buried in an already existing grave, and were frequently found in rooms where door and windows were firmly locked. Victims were killed in a number of unique ways including being precipitated down an iron staircase and hit by a stone propelled from a catapult. The world these writers portrayed was one which readers shared and understood, and any sense of the world outside the comfortable confines of conventional English village life was absent.

The detective stories of the interwar years were paradoxical. They might deal with violent death, sometimes in its most horrible manifestation, but essentially they were and remain novels of escape. We feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused, and for whomever the bell tolls, it does not toll for us. Whatever our secret terrors or the problems of our everyday life, we are not the body on the library floor, and when Poirot, Miss Marple or Lord Peter point an accusing finger, we can return a confident ‘not guilty’. Reading these novels today they produce the same comfort as they did when they were written. We enter a world of recognised morality, where evil is sanitised and we can settle down in a familiar English world where all problems will be solved and peace and normality restored in that imaginary postlapsarian Eden.

The best of the Golden Age detective stories have survived and will continue to survive, but they are not being written today. In the 1920s the present system of police forces being served by forensic science laboratories was not yet in place, and fictional autopsies were obviously regarded as somewhat unpleasant procedures and were very rarely mentioned, if indeed they took place. More importantly, the relationship between the police and the communities they serve has become more challenging in today’s diverse and multicultural society.

Increasingly, novelists have as heroes professional policemen faced with a challenging and sometimes dangerous job, and with family problems or difficulties with superiors to complicate their lives. Notably successful and popular examples are Colin Dexter’s Morse and Lewis, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, Ruth Rendell’s Wexford and Burden and Ian Rankin’s Rebus and Siobhan Clarke where we have the added example of a woman detective’s point of view. No modern writer can devise a story without regard to the scientific and technological developments which have changed the job of a detective, or to the immense social and economic changes which have helped to shape our world.

Even if two wars had not changed the maps of the world, the shadow of that first mushroom cloud will lie forever over the face of our planet. Mankind is adept at creating pleasures and diversions, sometimes dangerous and destructive, which promise at least a temporary relief from the inevitable tensions of contemporary life, and a love of detective fiction is among the less harmful. This continued popularity and worldwide appeal suggests that in our 21st century the detective story, old and new, will continue to provide distraction, entertainment and relief in our increasingly complex and disorderly world.

And now the days have darkened and we are on the cusp of a new year. In imagination we picture the reader of 1934. He has returned, well-fed and cosseted, from participation in the family Christmas and is now glad to be alone. The fire is banked up, the armchair is comfortable, a small table holds a glass and a bottle of his best claret, and he is ready for a mild intellectual challenge, excitement, vicarious horror and the latest exploits of his favourite detective. And from the opening sentence, or some variation of it, we move with him into that murderous but essentially cosy world.

‘It was a dark and stormy night…’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

©P.D. James 2013, all rights reserved. P.D. James — Baroness James of Holland Park — is the author of 20 novels, many featuring the detective Adam Dalgliesh.

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  • JohannesHibernicus

    Wonderful article! I read somewhere that contemporary crime fiction written by women (but not by P.D. James) tends to be very violent with gruesome details being given about the death and about the autopsies (Patricia Cornwell springs to mind and, of course, both the writer and the main character are lesbians). In the earlier period, this was left to the reader’s imagination.

    • Curtis Evans

      Some people think Ngaio Marsh was a lesbian too, but she wrote very differently from Patricia Cornwell (happily).

  • Curtis Evans

    Nicely written piece drawn from her elegant book Talking about Detective Fiction, but it misses a lot of the ferment actually going on in the detective fiction genre in the 1930s. What about the inverted/suspense crime novel promoted by such authors as Anthony Berkeley and Ethel Lina White, for example. What about detective novels that had non-aristocratic police sleuths (see Freeman Wills Crofts, for example) or that emphasized science (R Austin Freeman)? Miss Marple is referenced, but Christie only published one Marple novel and a single Marple short story collection during the Golden Age. Josephine Tey only published two of her crime novels in the Golden Age, neither of which is among her most highly regarded. Puzzle-oriented detective tales were written after the Golden Age and are still being written today, though they don’t get the attention “crime novels” do. They were also written in the United States. What about S. S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen, for example (or John Dickson Carr, who, though he set his novels mostly in England, was an American)?

    • Regarding Tey’s ‘most highly regarded’: do you mean The Daughter Of Time? Readers love that one but I found it irrational beyond belief. I liked her other books much better, especially the hyper-romantic Singing Sands and the poignant and clever book, The Franchise Affair.

      • Curtis Evans

        I agree about The Franchise Affair and don’t share the adoration of The Daughter of Time. These two books, along with Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes, seem to be her most highly regarded.

        • M. P. D.: a real delight! If a bit ‘unfinished’, in terms of just what IS motivating the head to make her choice. A possibly intriguing psychological angle not really explored by the novel(ist).

          • Curtis Evans

            Swanky, you should check out my blog thepassingtramp.blogspot.com sounds like we are on the same wavelength on detective fiction.

          • Will do, Curtis.

  • fionaingram

    Call me old-fashioned but I prefer a more elegant type of murder mystery. When people start cutting out their victims’ hearts and putting heads in the freezer, I don’t enjoy the story. For me the twists and turns of a gripping story and not the level of bloodshed make for a good detective novel. I like to read about ‘detecting,’ not slaughter. Give me Marple, Poirot, Whimsy et al. Morse, Wexford and Rebus join the ranks. I enjoy PD James’ novels because they are brilliantly and cleverly plotted, I like Adam Dalgliesh (AD) and her murders are a darn good read. I have just re-read for the umpteenth time her Death in Holy Orders.

    • Agreed. Writers that give gore and psychosis in their books have missed the point about what mystery readers want from mysteries. The idea of detective mystery obviously passed them by, especially the idea of soul detection as well as puzzle-solving.

    • Melissa C Williams

      Oh yes, indeed ! I too have devoured Death in Holy Orders numerous times, and LOVE the version on PBS staring Martin Shaw as “AD” After watching it, the music, the lovely chant, stays in my head for days.

  • Daviejohn

    I enjoyed this piece and the consequential comments. Made my day. And P.D James is still one of my favourite authors despite a good few new competitors.

  • jeanpalmer

    I couldn’t read the article because it insisted I pay for a subscription.. Costs 175 pounds to subscribe for one year in the US. What did I miss here?

    • Make a friend in England and get them to share the code. I figure it’s fair enough since I paid for it : )

  • Respectfully (P. D. James is one of the very best), I disagree on a couple of minor points of fact. Miss Marple had no sidekick, but Poirot’s Watson was Captain Hastings, especially in the earlier stories. Hastings is presented as slightly thick, entirely trusting, decent, and romantic. Also, I don’t know where Mrs James gets the idea that readers never forgave Christie for her Ackroyd solution. They not only ‘forgave’ her (if forgiveness was required: I hadn’t noticed); they went on to make her the biggest-selling author in the world behind, we were told, Shakespeare and the Bible (I never thought of W. S. and the Bible as ‘sellers’, but there you are). Until Rowling came along and incomprehensibly broke the records.

    • Curtis Evans

      I think very few people at the time actually complained about the “trick” of the Roger Ackroyd solution. The book was widely praised.

      • Yeah: that’s what I thought. And any complaints at the time must surely have been sour-grapey in character. The only other really surprising solution on a level with Ackroyd’s is Margery Allingham’s in Police At The Funeral. Even if it’s a bit less believable. Unfortunately, my small exposure to Allingham’s other work disappointed me.

  • vvputout

    The age of ‘snobbery with violence’ is over.


  • What has killed the traditional detective story is the invention of the mobile phone. It’s just about impossible to create the classic closed circle ambience necessary for detective stories if characters are expected to have them. It’s the reason why so many contemporary writers who write detective stories now set them in the 40s, the Edwardian age, the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome and so on.

  • jatrius

    Re ‘Chinamen’ The Sexton Blake stories are positively overrun by ‘Celestials.’ Given Sax Rohmer’s popularity with Fu Manchu, as well, perhaps he felt the market was already saturated.